The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Chat About Capri

by Lieut.-Col. Hemsted.
Volume 12, 1901, pg. 37

"Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun." And nowhere is the light sweeter or the sight of the sun more pleasant than in the little island of Capri at the southern end of the Bay of Naples.

Bright sunshine is common enough in all Italy, but, alas! in too many parts of it the brilliant atmosphere is full of malarious poison. In this little island, however, the air is the purest and healthiest as well as the most genial and the brightest--mountain-air and sea-air combined.

But quite apart from sanitary considerations, the sweetness of the light and the pleasantness of the sight of the sun are impressed upon the mind here in a peculiarly exhilarating way, not only giving the body a feeling of lightness and freshness and strength, but at once lifting the mind above all care and trouble and filling it with peace, happiness, and calm content.

Much has been written about Capri, and indeed there is much to be written, but nowhere have I seen sufficient importance given to the loveliness of its brilliant atmosphere. Not that the artists have not long ago recognized it and hastened here in ever-increasing numbers to catch and try to fix its marvellous "effects"; but its influence on the mind and body seem to have been overlooked, or at least unheeded.

Capri has been called the house of the indolent, but the seeming indolence is only the keen enjoyment of the aforesaid peace and content. Certainly the natives are far from being indolent, as is evidenced by the garden-like hand-tillage of the soil, everywhere banked up with much toil into small terraces on the steep hill-sides, and planted with vines and fruit trees, beneath which grow crops of corn and vegetables.

And as to the visitors--the manner in which they scamper about the island from the Blue Grotto at its very foot and almost under the blue water, to the top of Monte Solaro, nearly 2,000 feet above it, certainly cannot be called indolence.

And so if any of my readers are "weary and ill at ease," let me advise you to give yourself a holiday, throw a few old clothes into a portmanteau, jump into the "Rome express" at Victoria some Monday morning at 9 a.m., and before you have had time to be disgusted and dissatisfied by the luxuries of the dining car and sleeping berth, you find yourself at Rome on Tuesday night, in ample time to change into the midnight train for Naples, which you will reach about 7 a.m., Wednesday just in time for a bath and a breakfast before catching the morning steamer for Capri which takes you across the bay to Sorrento and then to the "Blue Grotto," before landing you, absolutely ravenous for lunch, at the marina or beach of Capri. If you are not able to rest well in a railway carriage, perhaps it would be better to stay in Rome for at least a day, while the life and gaiety and of that charming city will by contrast enhance the quiet and repose and the almost barbaric simplicity of life in Capri. And then. whether you leave Rome by the midnight train or any other, it will be best, whatever hour you arrive in Naples, to cross the bay by the 9 a.m. steamer (staying if necessary, a night in Naples), and on no account be beguiled into going by the afternoon boat, which is smaller and slower and dirtier, and lands you at Capri so weary, and at such a late hour in the day, as to spoil your first impressions of the place--and we all know how very important first impressions are. The "Blue Grotto" is one of the great attractions of the place, and very beautiful and wonderful it is. The conditions, however under which one sees it if, as is usual, you visit it from the steamer before landing at Capri, are not exactly favourable to its perfect enjoyment or a study of its beauties and wonders. A swarm of small boats awaits the arrival of the steamer, and each boat takes only two passengers, who have to lie down in the bottom of it to pass through the low narrow aperture, about three or four feet high, which is the only entrance to this marvellous cavern. It has been too often and too well described to need any words from me; but the impression made on those who visit it in this way and at this time seems to be chiefly one of impatience at being kept so long from the lunch for which, as I said above the sea voyage has given such an appetite. It is much better to go to the Grotto on another occasion in a rowing from the Marina at your own time and leisure, and it is best to do so in the forenoon, before the crowd of visitors from the steamer has exhausted the air of the Grotto, for, although it is a large and spacious cave, it has only the one small opening, and soon gets "close" with a crowd in it.

You will have had ample opportunity on the voyage from Naples to select the hotel at which you will "go to ground," for the hotel touts, in gold-lettered caps, abound on board the steamer, and jostle each other to present you with a card and capture you for their particular inn; but I will not prejudice you in favour of any of them, but will leave you to your own selection or the guidance of your "Baedeker." [travel guide-book] If you choose one of the small hotels near the Marina, you can easily, after struggling through the crowd of what have been called "Greek Goddesses," who are anxious to carry your luggage on their heads, reach your destination on foot; but if you go up to the town, which lies about 500 feet above the sea, just over the hill on the south side of the island, you should take a carriage, of which there are plenty in waiting, with drivers a little more civil and a little less noisy than their brethren in Naples, and the fares are plainly stated on their "tariffa."

After lunch, if not too tired with the exertions of the morning, take a carriage and drive to Anacapri, which lies another 500 feet or so higher up the mountain, and about halfway to the summit of Monte Solaro. The road zig-zags up the cliff, which in some places is very precipitous, and the view of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples is superb. As you rise higher you can see over the eastern end of the island into the Bay of Solerno and towards Amalfi, where the landslip recently carried away a great part of the principal hotel, which fell into the small harbour. When you reach the top of the steep part of the road, by the "Bitter" beer shop, you see away to Ischia on the west and the wide expanse of the Mediterranean. Stop the carriage just under the Molaro Hotel (before you reach Bitter's) and enjoy the view. St. Angelo is the high mountain you see in the distance above and beyond Sorrento, and forms a magnificent centre to a truly splendid scene. But, splendid as it is now, it will have a softer and richer charm a little later as you return by the glow of the setting sun. If you are here for a short visit of only a day or two, this drive will impress itself on your memory as one of the loveliest you have ever seen; but if you stay here for weeks or months it will have a different appearance each time you see it, and its beauty will grow on you till you can never forget it. You are here about a thousand feet above the sea, and if you look over the low wall by the roadside you are on a giddy precipice immediately over the water, the exquisite transparency of which enables you see the rocks and seaweeds at a great depth and these give a wonderful richness of colour--greens, browns, and blues--to the water, suggestive of jewels and gems, and in startling contrast to one's preconceived notions of the monotonous, dull sameness of sea water. The road now remains at about the same level to Anacapri, and through that village to Caprile, another smaller village just beyond it, whose gardens and comparatively tall trees give an added charm to this part of the island.

Here the carriage road abruptly ends, and apparently there is nothing more to see and nothing more to do but to turn and drive back. But, in reality from this point begin some of the most charming and fascinating country walks and rambles and scrambles it is possible to imagine.

All such ideas will, however, be driven from your mind this moment by a crowd of noisy children, ragged and dirty and more or less picturesque, who will be intent on carrying you off to one of the neighbouring houses, from the top of which you can see the view, which really is fine and see them dance the "Tarantella" which really is not. A glance will show you that you no longer look northward into the Bay of Naples, but southward over the wide extent of the Mediterranean Sea, with grey-headed Monte Solaro towering on the east, whose steep slopes southward and westward to the sea are covered with olive groves and fruit gardens and vine yards, and--if it is the month of April--the sides of the hill will have a distinctly pink tinge given them by the blossoms of innumerable peach trees. And for the present let this bird's-eye view suffice. It is time to drive home to your afternoon tea, but believe me that, fair as is the scene before you, the true inwardness of it is only to be found in the above-mentioned country rambles. In any direction you like, you will find tracks and footpaths, rough indeed beyond endurance by high-heeled shoes, but beautiful beyond words, with wild flowers at your feet and olives and oaks above you, through the branches of which are peeps of sea and sky and mountain top, rocks and ravines and distant islands, colour and light and brilliancy--in one word, enchantment.

But two things are very necessary for the enjoyment of it all--first, suitable shoes, and, secondly, a soul in harmony with these peaceful scenes. And if the harmony is not there now, it will soon come after a short sojourn in this dreamy island, "the world forgetting, by the world forgot."

In the meantime, let us turn to the more ordinary objects of interest to tourists in general, harmonious or otherwise. Your next excursion might be in the opposite direction, to the ruins of one of the many palaces of Tiberius--here called "Timberio." It is rather more than a mile from Capri, and as there is no carriage road it will be necessary either to walk or to ride a donkey which can be hired in the Piazza. The Palace stood on the precipitous eastern extremity of the island, a site now occupied by a small church, and the ruins are extensive and interesting; but Roman history and ruins are rather at a discount in the presence of the magnificent views of the opposite coasts and the bays of Naples and Salerno. The cape just opposite this point is only about three miles distant, and the mountains beyond it often capped with snow, and sometimes half veiled in mist, though more often glowing in the sunshine, have all the grandeur of mountain scenery, while the sense of narrowness and confinement so often felt in a mountainous country is relieved by the long line of coast and the sunny expanse of the two Bays. It is a scene to sit and absorb quietly, turning a deaf ear to the horrible tales of cruelty practised here by the much abused "Timberio." It adds immensely to the interest of the place to remember that in the far-off days, when our Saviour was a little child, this island--inhabited now chiefly by a poor and simple peasantry--was for ten years the home of the Court of the mighty Roman Empire.

Many palaces and costly villas were built here by the wealthy nobles and courtiers from Rome, besides a harbour on the south side of the island, near the wonderful Faraglione Rocks; and, of course, there was a garrison of soldiers, and troops of servants and slaves.

For its antiquity perhaps the most interesting thing is the "Grotta Metrimania," in which are the remains of a temple used by the ancient worshippers of the sun. It faces east to catch the first beams of the rising god, and is approached by a long and narrow stairway in the rocky ground near the "Arco Naturale," a natural arch formed by the action of the winds and waters upon the limestone of which the island is chiefly composed.

This grotto is not at the sea-level, but some hundreds of feet above it, though it has all the appearance of having been formed by the action of the waves. This island is said to have risen and fallen to different levels at various times, presumably, by volcanic action, although it is not a volcanic island; at least, it is not a volcano, but it is so near to surrounding volcanoes that it must have been influenced by them. For instance, there is a sunken volcano under the water at the mouth of the Bay of Naples, between Capri and the island of Ischia, which last is itself an old volcano. Capri has, however, been many thousands of years at its present level, so that the waves have had time to hollow out many beautiful grottoes besides the famous blue one. The Red, the Green and the White grottoes are all well worth a visit, which can be easily made whilst on a voyage round the island in a fishing-boat, which is a very good form of picnic on a smooth sea and a bright day.

But the best of all picnics is one to the top of Monte Solaro. The journey cannot be called a climb, and is little more than a steep walk; and the reward when you get there is too delightful for words. Nearly two thousand feet above the water! And on the south side the mountain is so precipitous that the waves seem to be almost at your feet. And the view!--well, I have said so much already about the beauties of this enchanting island that I fear you will suffer from a surfeit of scenery if I say more; and, after all, silence is the best expression of its grandeur, you will feel when you are there.

And now it is time my chat came to an end, for though I have not told you half there is to tell about Capri, there are limits to all things, even to chats.

Proofread May 2011, LNL